NBC would be insane to let Brian Williams return

"Put yourself in Steve Burke’s chair. You have learned that the guy to whom your company gave the top job doesn’t really desire it..."

14 Mar 2015 11:16 pm 46 Comments

Brian Stelter of CNN recently reported that Lester Holt, filling in as anchor of NBC Nightly News, was doing well in the ratings, so well that it would be hard for NBC to hand the job back to Brian Williams when he returns from his six-month suspension for making stuff up. According to Stelter’s sources, there is a lot of support for Holt among the rank and file at NBC News.

“This makes it impossible for them not to give it to Lester, if this continues,” one of them said.

I don’t make predictions and I have no sources inside NBC News telling me what is likely to happen, but looking at the whole episode (which I have written about before) there is no plausible way NBC News can restore Brian Williams to the job of anchoring the nightly news and serving as “face of the brand.” I’m not saying it won’t happen, only that NBC would be insane to do it.

Three reasons. Put them together, and I see no way Steve Burke, CEO of NBC Universal, can bring Williams back. By all accounts it will be Burke’s call. Here is what he has to get over:

1. Williams didn’t care if what he was saying about his experiences in Iraq was true. I think that’s the right way to put it. He did not have sufficient regard for truthtelling as the sacred duty of news people everywhere. He chose “makes a good story” (and “look at me, mom!”) over “what actually happened.” He did this not once but many times. For a journalist leading a network news division that by itself is a huge problem.

2. Williams dishonored the courage and sacrifice of NBC war correspondents. This violates another sacred duty in big league journalism. And that is to recognize that those who routinely place their lives on the line by basing themselves in conflict zones — reporters, producers, photographers, fixers — are in a different moral category from those who parachute in when there’s a big story, or those who, say, sacrifice their social lives by working long hours.Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.25.48 AM By imagining himself in more danger than he really was, Williams demonstrated that he did not have sufficient regard for these differences. That too is a huge factor weighing against him, especially within the peer culture at NBC, which he is supposed to lead and inspire.

Still, it’s at least conceivable that these two difficulties, serious though they are, could be surmounted with the right kind of apology and public reflection by Williams upon his return. He could show that he knows how badly he screwed up and try to restore himself to good standing through a searching self-examination, conducted in public through a speech, interview or broadcast report. There wasn’t any sign of that when the story broke (his initial apology was disastrous) but we haven’t heard from Williams since the gravity of the situation sunk in, so we don’t know how far reaching his self-reflections are.

But I see no way of surmounting…

3.) Williams doesn’t believe that anchoring the news is a big enough job for him. It’s been reported, it’s been chuckled about, but I don’t think we appreciate how damning this paragraph is. From Gabriel Sherman’s March 8 story in New York Magazine:

Comedy would have been a path out of [Tom] Brokaw’s shadow. A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called Rock Center. Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But Rock Center ended up more like a softer 60 Minutes, and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested.

Amazing. Twice Brian Williams tried to escape from the anchor’s job to a position more attractive to him— and, in his mind, more befitting his talents. Leaving aside his delusions about what it takes to succeed at comedy night after night, this attempt to defect from the state of news to the entertainment sphere is disqualifying on its face. Television news is full of ambitious people. The most ambitious want to be on camera. The most ambitious of those want to be anchors or show hosts. And the most ambitious of those want to anchor the nightly news for 7-10 million people per night plus $5 to $10 million a year.

In many more ways than one, the job Williams had is the top job in network news, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted a different job, at the summit of stand-up comedy, making and breaking the careers of all the strivers below while getting big laughs himself as the slick pro behind the fake desk. Like Letterman, like Leno, like Jon Stewart, his Jersey pal.

Put yourself in Steve Burke’s chair. You have learned that in news the guy to whom your company gave the top job doesn’t really desire it. He would rather be doing something else. Now you have to decide whether to bring him back from suspension. You have this report on your desk that documents how he made up stuff about himself, deeply embarrassing your network. And he insulted the courage of your most heroic employees by stealing some of it for personal aggrandizement. The rank and file is cheering for his replacement. Plus, he doesn’t want you. He wants late night comedy more.

Is that even a hard call?

46 Comments

Lester Holt is s true pro. Love his steady ways. Brian has lost us. If Lester goes we go, to Scott Pelley.

Once I saw Lester, I knew it was OVER for Williams. Lester is Black, and if he was replaced, there would be an outcry about the White Guy shoving the Black guy aside.

As a plus, it appears that Lester is competent and likeable, so – Mr. Williams is TOAST!

…because there’s so many black journalists anchoring the nightly news on the networks? If Lester did get the top job at NBC he would be the first black man in the top news anchor job at a major network since Max Robinson shared the job with Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds in 1978. I don’t think the networks are scrambling to diversify their news anchor ranks…

I had never been a fan of the evening news, gathering my current events from several newspapers, and CNN.

Curiosity had me tune in to Lester Holts NBC Nightly News( I had always been turned off by Brian William’s cocky, know it all persona).

Since Holt has taken over Nightly News I am tuned in every night. To hear the news delivered straightforwardly, with no self aggrandisement, is a delight. Mr Holt has a great delivery, and is appropriate and winning at the same time.

I plan our suppers around the broadcast, and agree, NBC would be nuts to bring Williams back to NBC….in ANY role.

Lester Holt is doing a fine job. If Brian Williams is brought back, I will switch channel to a different news network.

Richard Aubrey says:

To put yourself in a story sometimes requires the story be tweaked. For example, when Hillary was claiming to have been under sniper fire at Tuzla, she was saying the snipers could get–presumably if they had the big fifty-cal sniper rifles–within a mile and a half of the center of the place. Considerably less if they had a standard Infantry rifle like the M14 or its equivalent.

Now, either Tuzla had a security perimeter less than three miles in diameter, or it did not. A three-mile diameter would mean aircraft at the end of the runways would be going low and slow over enemy troops.

So, in order to look good, Hillary told us about Tuzla and what she told us was either alarming if true or misinforming if false. It is possible that some of Williams’ stories tweaked the reality,which would be worse than simply saying he was nearly hit when he was in a situation where that might happen anyway.

Jim Perry says:

Sir,
A note from an old grunt. Thanks For remaining people after the things that a military man knows by heart. Many people these days think they understand military tactics And honestly the only people who truly understand it are those who have lived through God bless and keep your powder dry

brian williams would rather do stand up or late night,lol, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOEjLsvBKJs&feature=youtu.be

Whitehall says:

Cut Williams some slack. He has the Nuremberg defense – “I was just following orders.”

NBC should do the right thing and put Lester Holt in the anchor position permanently. Brian Williams could do the honorable thing and bow out. Maybe then he could find something he is really suited to. But Lester Holt has shown he deserves this. He’s too good to lose, NBC.

Brad Van Halen says:

So if Williams is cast off the island for lying about sniper fire, what does that do for Hillary when she comes out from hiding?

michael madigan says:

NBC forced Johnny Carson out, lost David Letterman to CBS, forced Jay Leno out, Lost Conan to TBS, brought Leno back, pushed him out again. NBC never does anything right, don’t expect it to happen here either.

FrancisChalk says:

NBC is Insane (I thought everybody knew this), thus Brian Williams is at least 50-50 for coming back.

I enjoy watching lester Holt he is doing a great job ,however I miss Brian he is NBC And New York in one bundle I also miss his ties!!!

Nancy Hoene says:

50 – 50 nothing! Brian Williams is 100% for a comeback any time he wants. Everybody I know in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, D.C. and New York want him back. They can’t stop saying: Just get him back already! Brian Williams is more popular the longer NBC holds out and keeps punishing him. Viewers want him back. America wants him back. Whatever you think he did that you deem as so bad, WE DON’T CARE. Just bring him back.

Steven Springer says:

Jay,

Do you think that Andy Lack’s return to NBC News might in some way influence Brian Williams’ ultimate fate? Given the effort made to bring Lack back, might Steve Burke be influenced by Lack’s counsel?

I thought so at first. But the more I looked at, and talked to people who have worked in networked news, the less of a factor that appeared to be. It’s Burke’s ass on the line, not Lacks.

Your second point seems the most egregious to me — as both a journalist and someone who grew up in a very proud military family, I was really disgusted by Williams’s handling of the situation. But the most damning evidence of all is that he went so far as to name-check the late David Bloom while regaling Letterman with his embellished tale. Bloom lost his life in Iraq doing his job, and it’s pretty awful for Williams to remotely allege that they shared even a modicum of the same kind of courage or experience. Here’s hoping Holt gets the gig full-time, he certainly deserves it.

Doug Floyd says:

Point No. 1 should suffice to seal Williams’ fate. He lacks a fundamental commitment to truth-telling. That’s a deal breaker.

John LaChance says:

Let it go already. Brian Williams suffered the usual and not unusual occupational hazard that afflicts all war correspondents in a war zone. And that’s all. He’s a reporter who is brave enough to risk his life out in the field, as opposed to Chuck Todd who remains safe behind a desk. Here’s how and why it happened:

Brian Williams gets in a helicopter with professional warriors (our boys, of course), and they view him as a burden, an aficionado making money and a reputation off their backs. In order to gain street cred, he exaggerates a war zone incident one day for the respect he needs while out on patrol with these trained killers, whom he may actually need to save his life. It works; he feels better. And so, the next time, he stretches the truth a little bit more and, once again, feels more comfortable out on patrol with men who make him feel comfortable in their company.

Never called to account by these boy warriors, he comes to believe his own stories. And one day, on Letterman, feeling exposed and needing respect, he leans on a story that once made him feel protected in an exposed situation. But, not in the reverberating fuselage of a helicopter or in the alcoholic haze of a cocktail party, he makes that story public on television.

Why should that be the end of him? With artillery rounds detonating around you or bullets whizzing by you or helicopters exploding behind you, will you tell me you wouldn’t exaggerate your own achievements to gain the respect of people who might have to make a decision as to whether they save your life or not?

Brian Williams succumbed to an occupational hazard of privileged noncombatants in a war zone, something that the holier-than-thou desk reporters never have to experience. No, Brian Williams did not dishonor war correspondents before or after him…since they have all and will all resort to the same gambit to survive. So, let it go already. He’s great at reporting the news, especially now that he knows he shouldn’t be insinuating himself into the news.

Thanks. Smart perspective.

NateWhilk says:

Brian Williams succumbed to an occupational hazard of privileged noncombatants in a war zone, something that the holier-than-thou desk reporters never have to experience.

But a holier-than-thou commenter feels free to throw in their faces.

No, Brian Williams did not dishonor war correspondents before or after him…since they have all and will all resort to the same gambit to survive.

So your argument is that everybody does it? Seriously?

So, let it go already. He’s great at reporting the news, especially now that he knows he shouldn’t be insinuating himself into the news.

Why didn’t this “great” reporter know about honesty and correctly reporting the facts before he became a reporter?

It’s enablers like you who let liars like Williams and Rather get away with their lies.

frank pasquale says:

I am a very proud Brian Williams Nightly News fan … as a protest against his suspension .. I am watching David Muir at ABC until Brian Williams returns to Nightly News.

As for Mr. Williams appearances on various shows demonstrating his comedic skills … I appreciated Mr. Williams appearances on the shows that he was a guest on… they showed that he was a funny and likable human being … not a boring teleprompter news reader like many anchor replacements are.

As for your personal attack on Mr. Williams and why he should not be taken back by NBC .. maybe you seek attention and wish to pump up your own credibility and ego in a public forum to enhance your self in the eyes of others. I thought that your words were harmful and wrong.

They always say…. those that can do …. do the job.. and . those that can not do the job… they teach. Unfortunately, some people have large egos and attack others that are successful with words in order to try and tear them down. Jealousness is the worst enemy one can have. I am sorry you think the way that you do.

I like Mr. Williams and wait for his return to as the Anchor of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Nancy Hoene says:

I am with you all the way on that point.

I understand that you don’t share my criticisms of Williams and think them very far off base, but why do you call them a “personal attack?” What is inappropriately “personal” about them? The points I make here are about the logic of keeping Williams in a key position in the news division, given what is publicly known about events he has apologized for. This post does not trade in gossip or delve into his private life or make any observations at all about whether he is a good guy. It sticks to his public role. So why is it a personal attack?

Frank Pasquale says:

Dear Mr. Rosen,

I consider your words a personal attack on Mr. Williams because you are suggesting that NBC should not be willing to give their main anchor, who has done so much good work, the opportunity to return to his position at NBC News. You leave no room for a comeback. I feel that it is people like you that give no regard to destroying the careers of others with your words. I think you like the attention that you receive so much that it is impossible for you to realize what I am saying to you in this matter and the harm that you do. There is nothing like kicking a dog when it is down. Maybe you should get a real job in the corporate world and see how well you would survive there knowing everything as well as you do.

Nancy Hoene says:

Well said. I concur.

Okay, got it. Based on what you said here, you don’t mean “that was a personal attack.” You chose the wrong words. You meant: “I think you’re totally wrong” and “What do you know, sitting in your ivory tower? Get a job in the real world before you try to criticize a pro like Brian Williams.” Cheers.

Abe Maslow says:

Jay, this is well reasoned. One factual quibble, regarding this: “plus $5 to $10 million a year.”

First, I believe The Los Angeles Times, which first had the story earlier this year on NBC’s new contract with Brian D. Williams, said the salary was “in excess of $10 million a year.”

So we’re not between $5 million and $10 million. We’re north of $10 million.

The truth is, that’s a silly underestimation.

The previous contract for Williams, ending May 17, 2015, paid him $16.5 million in its last year. (By the way, that’s $317,307 a week, or $$63,462 per weekday, not allowing for vacations. That’s also $4.5 million more than the Yankees paid Derek Jeter in his last year.)

Doesn’t it stand to reason that Williams signed a new contract for more than his previous one? This was before all the recent troubles. So, yes, in excess of $10 million. Much in excess. Nearly twice as much as $10 million.

The previous contract put BDW not at the top of the NBC salary chart, but at No. 2, behind Matt Lauer and his $30 million a year.

Thanks, Abe. Two points:

1.) In that sentence I was referring to the anchor’s position generally, not the contract Brian Williams signed. I used a range because who knows what David Muir or some future rookie anchor would sign for?

2.) I was unable to find the LA Times piece you mention with the specific dollar figures you quoted. But I did find this:

“While other NBC News programs have experienced ratings declines in recent years, Williams’ broadcast has held steady in its leadership position and actually gained viewers in recent months. In December, he was rewarded with a five-year contract that pays him about $10 million a year.”

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-brian-williams-nbc-suspension-20150211-story.html

Cheers.

Abe Maslow says:

Thanks, Jay.

I hear you on point No. 1. I understand now, you were referring to the range of salaries of Williams and the anchors at the other networks.

Still, the top end of that range is more than $10 million. (In all reason, it’s more than $16.5 million.)

Here’s the link to that LATimes piece on Dec. 15, breaking the news of BDW’s new contract.

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-st-brian-williams-20141215-story.html

It says:

“NBC News is expected to announce Monday that he has signed a new contract. Though Williams will acknowledge only that it’s a long-term deal, insiders at the network say it will keep him at the helm of the “NBC Nightly News” for at least five more years. He didn’t disclose his financial compensation, but it’s said to be more than $10 million a year.”

So more than $10 million per year. Oh, how coy the NBC sources are: They leak the news of the new contract, but downplay the salary by at least two-thirds. This is the sort of insider/access reporting you love.

There’s a lot to read in that LATimes article, in a we’re-so-happy-to-be-boarding-the-Titanic sort of way. Including this interesting quote:

“It’s probably time I admit that I am a one-trick pony,” the 55-year-old Williams said from his Rockefeller Center office in New York this past weekend. “I am, I think, designed and put on this Earth to do what I’m doing now — and that is to eat, sleep and breathe nonfiction and the news going on in the world. And then at 6:30 every night I get to deliver it, and I get to hear from the audience, and I get to know them.”

Then the article goes on to talk about all the ways NBC and Deborah Turness plan to spread more of Brian Williams across all of its platforms, because he’s so central to the reputation of the network.

Harry Shearer says:

I have known and liked Brian, in his pre-NN days. It seems clear that NBC approved, and hoped to profit from, his late-night talk-show appearances. It was “expanding the brand”, perhaps attracting some younger people to the broadcast (though unlikely). Nonetheless, a network that clears out virtually its entire corps of foreign correspondents and relies for its reputation and trustworthiness on one anchor (paid a salary that would compensate 20 or so reporters) is taking a big gamble. I think the worst that can be said about Brian is that he substituted a network’s moral compass for his own.

tyller dan says:

Just bring him back

Nancy Hoene says:

YES. YES. YES

Rachel Monroe says:

Bring Brian back

Nancy Hoene says:

Ditto that!

Why do you assume that anchoring the NBC Nightly News (or any MSM news broadcast) is not a proper stepping stone to late night comedy? As long as news success is measured by ratings, as long as corporate influences determine what is NOT talked about, as long as the emphasis is on giving the public what it THINKS it wants to know, rather than what it needs to know, broadcast news will be more entertainment than information. Has anyone yet suggested that maybe, just maybe, the proper next career step for Brian Williams is to succeed John Stewart?

Janet S. says:

Do not bring Brian Williams back. Now when I see him I’ll think “lying blowhard” not “news purveyor.” How am I ever supposed to believe a repeat liar? He’s lost my trust and my viewership.

I agree. There always seemed to be something phony about Brian Williams. Fake sincerity.

And he must be a nut case with “being shot at ” and seeing a body floating past his hotel window?? You just can’t make this nutty stuff up, can you???

However I have always felt Lester holt could do more and now he is… la smart guy

I used to watch Scott Pelli, but now I watch Lester Holt. He is the right guy for this important job.

Peggy Bentz says:

I hope they don’t bring back Brian Williams. He has become a laughingstock.

Charley Reeb says:

It’s time to wake up everybody! The majority of news today is entertainment. Are you really surprised that Brian Williams was interested in hosting a talk show? All primetime news anchors are trained and groomed to appeal to the masses. Recall those ad campaigns NBC did branding Williams? It wasn’t about the news; it was about marketing an entertaining and appealing talking head. It’s all ratings and appeasing the big companies who pay for advertising. Let’s not get too sanctimonious about nightly prime time news. What Williams did was wrong but if we are honest we know that his lies and embellishments were simply playing in to the popular entertainer NBC had tried so hard to brand.

This is the most common comment I have gotten about the Brian Williams episode.

See: A few principles for how I operate as a critic

http://pressthink.org/2013/06/a-few-principles-for-how-i-operate-as-a-critic/

I admire your analysis. I read this as no fan of Nightly News. I am a fan of Holt. He’s been great every time I’ve seen him.

But this got to me — please explain your disdain:

“He wanted a different job, at the summit of stand-up comedy, making and breaking the careers of all the strivers below while getting big laughs himself as the slick pro behind the fake desk. Like Letterman, like Leno, like Jon Stewart, his Jersey pal….”

Mr. Williams has a right to pursue any career he wants. But I think NBC should want in the lead anchor and managing editor’s position a journalist who has chosen journalism as his life’s work and is satisfied with that choice.

Nancy Hoene says:

Brian Williams is as popluar as ever and NBC would be stupid if they let him go permanently. Every week I hear reguylar down-to-earth average people say: When is Brian Williams coming back? I don’t watch NBC News any more. I watch John Muir on ABC news. But anyone who thinks Brian Williams can’t come back or the NBC would pay a price if he did is just WRONG! He can come back any time he wants. America LOVES Brian Williams. People want him back in the public eye. We want him doing the news. We don’t care about a story that he told 10 years later and got the facts wrong. We just don’t care. He is the reason we watched NBC news and he can come back any time and it would be as if he had never left. Stop making a big deal out of it and just get him back on the job! Any time!

If NBC promised Brian his job back after his 6 months, then they should keep their word, don’t promise something and turn your back on it. Talk about and then lying about it.